The snare drum, when applicable, is an important part of a mix, especially in modern music. Its popularity and versatility span plenty of genres, and a lot can be done with compression to extend such versatility further. When it comes to compressing snare drums, there are no simple step-by-step instructions; every mix is unique. However, there are certain considerations we should take into account when compressing the snare, which is what this article is all about.
Before we go any further, I should state that there are no hard rules with compression or any other mixing process. The tips mentioned in this article are simply suggestions and techniques worth considering when compressing a snare drum. No procedures work 100% of the time, and every mix is unique in its own needs.
Here are 10 pro tips for compressing snare drum:
- Always A/B test
- Consider how the snare drum was recorded
- Consider the genre
- Use the time variables to your advantage
- Compression for colouration
- Consider serial compression
- A note on drum bus compression
- Think EQ before or after compression
- Be aware of bleed
- Use your ears
Let's discuss each of these tips in more detail to give you important considerations when compressing snare drums in your mixes.
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Always A/B Test
My first tip for you is to regularly A/B test any compression moves you make on your snare drum track(s).
A/B testing effectively tests two options (option A and B) and compares the two to make an informed decision on which is better. We can A/B test by turning the snare drum compressor on and off (bypassing it).
Whenever we make any adjustments to a snare drum compressor, it's worth A/Bing them against the original signal and listening to whether the compression improves the sound of the snare in the overall mix or not.
When A/B testing, bypass the compressor and listen for about 10 seconds. Turn it back on and listen for another 10 seconds. Repeat the process and decide whether to keep the compressor, readjust it, or get rid of it.
The human auditory system tends to adjust to whatever we're listening to. When mixing, we can quickly lose perspective and our objective decision-making skills. As we adjust parameters to achieve balance and any other goals in the mixing process, we can quickly lose our frame of reference of what good snare drum compression actually is.
If you're interested, be sure to check out my video on the top 5 A/B tests worth incorporating regularly into your mixes:
To learn more about A/B testing, check out my article A/B Testing & Its Importance In Mixing (With 5 Best Tests).
Consider How The Snare Drum Was Recorded
The more information we have regarding how the song was recorded and produced, the better mixing decisions we can make. Knowing how the snare drum was recorded gives us a better idea of what it is we're working with when it comes time to apply compression (if at all).
Was the snare drum recorded with microphones, and if so, how was the snare miked up? Was there only a single top microphone, or was a bottom microphone included in the recording as well? How well is the snare picked up in the overheads and room mics?
Positioning the mic above the snare will generally yield a cleaner, more transient sound across the frequency spectrum but can be sensitive to bleed from the other drums and cymbals of the kit (particularly the nearby hi-hats). Conversely, positioning a mic underneath the snare will capture more of the snare rattle and character of the snare drum, perhaps with a bit less bleed.
If a mic is positioned to capture the top head of the snare attack, we may want to lengthen the compressor's attack time to really shape the attack of the snare sound in the mix. We can also opt to compress the bottom snare signal a bit more quickly to enhance the body and sustain of the snare rattle while taming the transients slightly. This is just a suggestion.
If there's significant bleed, we may want to hold off from applying too much compression so as not to raise the noise level relative to the snare's sound. The more we compress the loudest parts of the signal (the sound of the snare), the louder the noise (bleed) will be in relation to the snare.
Snare drums are often samples in pop, hip-hop and electronic music. Ask yourself how processed the snare drum is and whether it may or may not require compression to fit into the mix at hand.
Similarly, many productions utilize ‘drum replacement', where a recorded snare drum is either replaced or doubled with samples to enhance the sound of the drums. Regarding the snare, consider whether the original and/or replaced snare sound needs compression.
Finally, “snare drums” can also be synthesized. Be careful with synth snare, as many synthesizers can produce frequency very defined transients. If the transient information is a bit too much, we can either shape the synth patch or utilize compression to shape the peaks of the snare attack.
Additionally, suppose the snare drum was recorded with compression inserted between the mic and the recording medium (digital or analog). In that case, we may not need as much compression in the mix, if at all.
For more information on inserts, check out my article Audio: What Are Inserts? (Mixing, Recording & More).
I don't have any specific settings for compression in this regard. However, it's important to know the source of the snare drum sound to make more informed decisions.
Consider The Genre
Snare drums often serve different roles, albeit slightly, in different genres of music. Furthermore, the typical mix aesthetic tends to shift from genre to genre.
We'll often record or sample a snare drum to suit the song in the recording and production phases of the music production process. However, it's worth considering the genre and the role of the snare drum within the song before we reach for compression.
I should reiterate that no two mixes are the same, but we can still draw similarities within genres.
For example, the snare drum of an EDM track will likely be much more powerful and well-represented in the mix. A jazz snare may be lower in the mix and not require compression at all. A blast beat pattern in a metal song may require significant shaping (with compression or otherwise) in order not to overload the mix with the transients of the snare drum.
These examples are just a few of the considerations worth addressing. Give thought to the genre of music you're mixing and study a few references if you need to to get a better idea of potential compression moves on the snare drum.
Use The Time Variables To Your Advantage
The snare drum plays many rhythmic roles in music, so it's practically impossible to give any all-encompassing advice for compression.
A good starting point for transient snare hits (like those commonly found on beats 2 and 4 of modern music) is to use a ratio of 4:1 and a threshold set so that there's 3 dB of gain reduction. Adjust the attack time to help shape the transient information and set the release time so that the compressor will disengage before any following hits (pay special attention to how the compressor reacts to fills).
If the snare is much busier with lots of dynamics and nuance, applying limiter-style compression with small amounts of gain reduction and appropriate makeup gain can tame the peaks while bringing up the finer details of the snare playing (ghost notes, circular brush movement, etc.).
When it comes to the time variables of compressors, there are three main strategies we can consider when compressing snare drum tracks (or any other transient element, for that matter). Let's consider the strategies from their attack and release parameters:
Fast attack and fast release times:
A fast attack time will clamp down on the snare signal quickly, thereby reducing the gain of the snare's attack. Combine this with a fast release time, which quickly resets the compressor after the transient attack, and we achieve the effect of reduced attack and greater sustain. Adjust as necessary to avoid pumping side effects.
Fast attack and slow release times:
A fast attack will, again, reduce the level of the initial attack. However, since the compressor will take some time to return to 0 dB of gain reduction, the relative level difference between the transient and sustain of the snare will remain largely the same. Set the release time so it resets the compressor after the bulk of the sustain, but before the next snare hit is key.
The higher the input level of the transient above the threshold, the greater the gain reduction of the compressor, which has the effect of smoothing out the variations in the attack level of the snare, resulting in a more consistent performance.
Slow attack and slow release times:
Slow attack times are very interesting in compressors because they can actually cause the compressor to increase the signal's perceived dynamic range rather than decrease it. Such is often the case with transient sounds like snare drums.
Setting a slow attack time will allow the initial transient information to pass through uncompressed before the compressor clamps down. The slow release time will ensure that the compressor doesn't immediately bounce back and that it reduces the gain after the set attack time. The result of such time variables is a snare with a snappier transient sound and less sustain.
Note that a slow attack and fast release are liable to sound unnatural and cause pumping artifacts if it engages the compressor at all (it may very well be the case that by the time the compressor's attack causes it to react, the sidechain will have fallen below the threshold and the short release would cause the compressor to disengage).
Adjust as necessary. These are only suggestions.
For more information on transient shaping with compression, check out my video:
Compression For Colouration
In addition to the main purpose of automatic gain reduction, compressors will have the effect of colouring the sound. While some compressor plugins are programmed to be as transparent as possible, many other plugins, and certainly hardware compressors, will impart their own sonic imprint on the audio signals passing through them.
This colouration is sometimes experienced as an inherent EQ curve, though perhaps more obviously, it's experienced as harmonic saturation, where new harmonic information is effectively added to the signal due to the distortion of the components (or programming) of the design.
Such colouration can help enhance the snare drum's character and help it “poke through” the mix, particularly in the critical mid-range frequencies.
Utilizing compression for its characteristic “sound” is relatively common, even if it means inserting a compressor in-line without even applying any gain reduction only to add colour to the snare drum (or other elements).
One issue to consider is the inherent noise caused by hardware compressors and analog plugin emulations. We must ensure proper gain staging to achieve a solid signal-to-noise ratio. This means we need to drive the compressor with enough signal level to avoid excessive noise relative to the signal while also keeping the signal level low enough to avoid excessive distortion.
For more information on gain staging, check out my article Mixing: What Is Gain Staging & Why Is It Important?
On top of the inherent sonic characteristics of certain compressors, the actual gain reduction applied by the compressor will also obviously alter the sound. In this way, we can also apply subtle amounts of compression to add a bit of extra character to the snare drum.
Consider Serial Compression
Serial compression, as the name suggests, has multiple compressors in series in a signal chain. In other words, having a compressor's output feeding another compressor's input (and so on) somewhere down the line.
Serial compression could be as simple as inserting two compressors on a single snare track or having a single compressor on a snare track being routed through a drum bus (also being compressed) that's ultimately being fed through a mix bus compressor.
To keep things simple for this article, we'll discuss compressors inserted back-to-back on a single snare drum track.
Serial compression, in this way, is great for not overloading any single compressor. It can sound more natural and shave off more dynamics, leading to more consistent snare drum levels without as many unnatural pumping artifacts. We can also get different colours of different compressors (see the previous tip).
With proper serial compression, we can have arguably more natural transient and sustain shaping in the snare track while also increasing the potential for loudness in the mix by bringing down the peak levels of the snare.
Try this out for yourself the next time you need a significant amount of snare drum compression to fit a snare in the mix appropriately.
I talk about and demonstrate serial compression in more detail in one of my YouTube videos that you can check out here:
A Note On Drum Bus Compression
Beyond compressing the snare drum track, we should also consider the snare drum's role in the drum bus (if we're routing the snare to a drum bus) and how we may want to go about compressing the drum bus.
Subtle glue compression can help bring the individual drum tracks together into a more cohesive-sounding kit. To achieve this style of compression, start with a low ratio of 2:1, a high threshold with about 1 or 2 dB of gain reduction, and medium attack and release times. Adjust the parameters to find a setting that glues the drums together nicely.
You can also opt to send drums to a bus for parallel compression processing. Parallel compression generally crushes the bus signal (high ratio with lots of gain reduction) and mixes it back in with the rest of the mix at a lower level.
I have a video going into more detail on parallel processing that you can check out here.
These are only suggestions, and you should adjust as necessary.
Note that if we're sending high snare levels to the drum bus, we can have a situation where the snare is the first (and potentially the only) part of the signal to trigger the compressor's gain reduction.
It's worth paying attention to how the snare hits cause the drum bus compressor to react. It could be a sign that the snare is too hot in the mix if it's triggering the compressor too much relative to the kick, for example.
Note that feeding a compressed snare track to a drum bus and compressing the bus is an example of serial compression.
To learn more about buses, check out my article What Are Audio Buses? (Mixing, Recording, Live Sound).
Think EQ Before Or After Compression
Compression and EQ are two of the most-used processes in mixing, so it's worth addressing whether to compress the snare drum before or after EQ (or both).
If any notable resonances or low-end noise in the snare drum signal could trigger the compressor, I would filter those frequencies out with EQ before sending the snare drum signal to the compressor.
Beyond that, it's largely a matter of taste. However, I'd still recommend investigating which order sounds best in your specific mix.
EQing a snare drum before compression lets us shape the frequency content more aggressively, knowing that the compressor will help smooth it out. It's also good to have control over what the compressor “sees” and reacts to.
In general, EQ before compression will yield a smoother, warmer result with snare drums (and other sources).
Compressing a snare drum before EQ gives us less control over what the compressor reacts to but more control over the tonal balance of the signal. Note that the EQ should be applied more sparingly here since the audio has already been smoothed out.
In general, EQ after compression offers a cleaner, sharper result with snare drums (and other sources).
So consider the genre and the song as a whole, and experiment with whether the compressor should come before or after the EQ if either process is used at all!
Be Aware Of Bleed
You can skip this tip if the snare drum is sampled or synthesized.
However, if the snare is part of an acoustic kit that was miked up and recorded, we ought to be aware of the bleed from these other drums and even other instruments (if the drums were recorded in the same room as other instruments).
In particular, we should be conscious of the hi-hat bleed since the hi-hats are typically right next to the snare drum in a standard drum kit.
Because compression reduces the dynamic range of a signal, it will have the effect of bringing up the quiet parts of the signal relative to the loud parts. This applies to the wanted signal (the snare sound) and the environment's noise or bleed (cymbals, other drums, etc.).
So when it comes to compressing the snare drum, we should be wary of any bleed and how we'll be bringing it up in the snare track with compression.
Revisiting the previous tip, we can opt to EQ out some of the bleed, resonances or noise from the snare signal before the compressor to help reduce the amount of noise/bleed brought up by the compression.
Use Your Ears
This applies to every mixing decision we make, but it's vital that we use our ears when using any processing on any tracks within a mix. This, of course, includes snare drum compression.
Any tips I could give you in this article are null and void if they don't serve your tastes or the mix as a whole. It's impossible to give instructions about specific parameter settings because every mix will demand something different.
While I can give you good starting points and general advice, the best piece of advice I could ever give you when compressing a snare drum is to use your ears.
If the snare drum compression doesn't sound good or serve the mix, either get rid of it, change the compressor being used, or adjust the parameters of the current compressor. Rely on your ears (along with A/B testing) to get the best results!
Other Compression Tips For Common Elements
- Top 11 Best Tips For Compressing Kick Drums
- Top 11 Best Tips For Compressing Bass Guitar
- Top 9 Best Tips For Compressing Electric Guitars
- Top 9 Best Tips For Compressing Acoustic Guitars
- Top 9 Best Tips For Compressing Pianos & Keyboards
- Top 11 Best Tips For Compressing Vocals
- Top 11 Best Tips For Compressing The Mix Bus
Be sure to also check out my top overall 11 compression tips for mixing in this video:
Determining the best compressor for your audio needs takes time, knowledge and effort. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Compressor Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next dynamic range compressor purchases.